FCC's Enforcement Bureau Cracks Down on Telecom Giants

Travis LeBlanc is chief of the Enforcement Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission.

Travis LeBlanc is chief of the Enforcement Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission. California Attorney General's Office

In his first year on the job as chief of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, Travis LeBlanc has issued some of the largest fines in the agency's history.

There's a new sheriff in town at the Federal Communications Commission. And he's got corporations reaching for their checkbooks.

In his first year on the job as chief of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, Travis LeBlanc has issued some of the largest fines in the agency's history.

AT&T agreed to pay $105 million for placing unwanted charges on consumers' phone bills. T-Mobile had to pay $90 million over similar allegations. Marriott Hotels paid $600,000 for blocking its customers' Wi-Fi hotspots. And CenturyLink and Verizon got fined $16 million and $3.4 million, respectively, for a software glitch that blocked 911 calls for six hours.

In total, the FCC, working with other agencies, has collected more than $365 million in fines, settlements, and refunds for consumers since LeBlanc took office last March, according to a National Journal review of agency records.

LeBlanc is a new kind of enforcement chief for the FCC. Previous heads of the bureau have usually been career FCC lawyers, with extensive experience in telecommunications issues in other parts of the agency. They were used to working closely with companies, often negotiating with them as the FCC crafted regulations. But LeBlanc is a prosecutor, who has little interest in playing nice.

He's already helped the FCC earn a tougher reputation on enforcement, and his role will only grow under the agency's controversial net neutrality rules, which will empower him to review complaints and launch investigations into a range of disputes over Internet access.

A graduate of Princeton University, Yale Law School, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Cambridge University, LeBlanc worked in private practice before joining the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in 2009, where he advised the Obama administration on the legality of the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage, among other issues.

He first caught the attention of the tech industry as a top aide to California Attorney General Kamala Harris. In California, he pressured Google, Apple, Facebook, and other tech giants to agree to privacy standards for mobile apps. He also set up a high-tech crime unit, and joined the federal government in blocking AT&T's bid to buy T-Mobile.

"He's fearless. He's not afraid to be bold," Harris, now running for the Senate, said of her former adviser. "He admires the innovation that technology has created and is born out of. But he also understands that there's no false choice, that we have to have rules in place to protect vulnerable people."

In an interview in his office, LeBlanc said he's always known he wanted to be a lawyer, but that a job at the FCC wasn't necessarily his lifelong ambition. "I ended up at the FCC because my wife got a job in D.C., and I'm the plus one," explained LeBlanc, whose wife is an engineering professor at George Washington University.

LeBlanc's aggressive approach at the agency has some industry groups grumbling. The National Association of Broadcasters called LeBlanc's $325,000 fine of a small Virginia TV station for accidentally airing a brief pornographic image "remarkably punitive" and "wholly unwarranted."

Two telecom industry advocates complained that LeBlanc has been successful at grabbing headlines, but less effective at actually curbing bad behavior. By not being lenient on companies that self-report violations, he is discouraging future companies from coming forward, they said.

"The FCC's new approach will discourage cooperation and self-disclosure, and it's going to force regulatees to beef up on litigation instead of compliance with the rules," one industry lobbyist said. "Ultimately, that's a poor use of resources for taxpayers, and it will lead to a worse result for consumers."

But consumer advocates are thrilled with the crackdown.

"I think it's been wonderful," Harold Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge, said. "The Enforcement Bureau has been positively reinvigorated under his tenure."

Feld applauded LeBlanc for conducting aggressive investigations, issuing serious fines, and forcing companies to admit wrongdoing in settlements.

"I'm not surprised there's a lot of whining going on," Feld said. "I suspect the next step will be for them to go lobby Congress to get the Republican majority to tell the FCC to leave those nice corporations alone."

Despite his reputation, LeBlanc doesn't see himself as a merciless crusader against businesses.

"I think anytime someone stands up for average consumers, there's a perception that they're pushing the limits," he said.

LeBlanc described his philosophy as a "public health" approach to enforcement by focusing on prevention rather than just addressing problems after they have occurred. He has issued public advisories to get companies in line without having to issue any fines. When he does crack down on a company, he says he tries to pick the worst offender to send a message to the rest of the industry, and to pick cases that will matter to the most number of consumers.

LeBlanc acknowledged that many of his cases fall into a legal gray area, where the companies might not have even realized they were doing anything wrong.

"Generally speaking, I've found that most companies want to do the right thing, and when it's clear that something is impermissible, they generally don't do it," he said. "So when you're in enforcement, you're almost always working in a gray area."

LeBlanc's judgements on gray area cases will be particularly important when the FCC begins to enforce its net neutrality rules, which are set to go into effect June 12. While the FCC set some bright-line rules that Internet providers are unlikely to violate, the agency will also handle many disputes on a case-by-case basis.

Under the rules, Internet providers are barred from engaging in "unjust and unreasonable" practices or from "unreasonably interfering" with the ability of users to access the online content of their choice. LeBlanc will play a key role interrupting that language and setting the precedent for how the agency will investigate and enforce the rules.

LeBlanc said he doesn't want to prejudge any net neutrality issues, and that he will review complaints that he receives with an open mind. But on privacy and data security—issues tied to the FCC's net neutrality rules—he already is gaining a reputation for being particularly aggressive. He forced Verizon to pay $7.4 million for misusing customer information for marketing, and AT&T had to pay $25 million for failing to stop the theft of its customers' data.

Privacy protection is relatively new terrain for the FCC, because the Federal Trade Commission has historically been the key agency on the issue. But as a legal side effect of the FCC's decision to expand its power over Internet service for net neutrality, the agency stripped the FTC of authority over Internet providers.

FTC officials argue that their expertise is critical in protecting consumer privacy, and have asked Congress to reinstate their authority over Internet service. LeBlanc was careful to praise the FTC's track record.

"My view is that you can never have enough cops on the beat," he said.

But he also argued that FCC is up to the task of protecting consumers' personal information. The agency has already issued about $50 million in fines over the past year for privacy and data security violations, he said.

LeBlanc's critics and supporters agree that the commission's tough new approach is not only a reflection of his personality, but also an indication of the priorities of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. The chairman has the ultimate authority over the bureau's actions, and all major decisions have to be approved by the full five-member commission.

"You don't choose a prosecutor to head up the Enforcement Bureau without knowing what you're getting," Feld said.

—This article has been updated.